Bruce looked up. He had become absorbed in the crossword, and the fifteen minutes had passed without being noticed. He had not solved any of the clues, which irritated him, particularly since Big Lou had so effortlessly come up with the answer to 1 across. Expose. What a stupid clue, thought Bruce. Perhaps that was the problem – the clues were just too basic, and that if he were to tackle one of those more complex crosswords – like the ones in the heavier Sunday papers, composed by people with impressive, classical noms de plume – then the solutions would come to him.
Bruce had not seen Ed Macdonald for almost a year, and he noticed that he had grown a small moustache. It did not suit him, thought Bruce, but then nothing suited Ed. He looked as dim without a moustache as with one. And he always wore those excessively heavy brogues in that strange-coloured leather. Ed called it light tan, but it was really pale yellow; and those socks with pictures of dogs on them. A serious lack of taste, thought Bruce. Poor Ed, but perhaps what you should expect from … where did Ed come from originally? Somewhere near Falkirk. He claimed to be from Crieff, but he wasn’t really. It was somewhere nobody had ever heard of. Poor Ed.
Bruce and Ed had been at school together at Morrison’s Academy, where Ed, Bruce recalled, had come last in just about everything. Not that anybody believed in ranking any more, but if they did, Ed would certainly be at the bottom. What had they voted him – those girls, Priscilla and her friends? Worst-dressed boy, wasn’t it? Or was it Creepiest Guy? Or did that go to Ed’s friend Vince Treadmill? What happened to Vince, Bruce wondered. Poor Vince. Poor Ed. How tragic. Both of them. Tragic.
Ed sat down. “Doing the crossword, I see,” he said. And then, sniffing at the air, “This place stinks of bacon.”
Bruce looked anxiously in Big Lou’s direction, but decided she had not heard.
“Keep your voice down, Ed,” he said. “It’s because of the bacon rolls. You should try them.”
“I’m a vegetarian,” said Ed. “I don’t eat dead animals.”
Bruce was surprised. “You used to eat hamburgers. I remember it. The grease used to run down your chin and cover your pimples. I have a very clear memory of it.”
Ed smiled. “Used to, Bruce. Used to. You used to … No, I won’t say it. Not here.”
Ed glanced again at the crossword. “You don’t seem to have made much progress.”
Bruce waved a careless hand. “I’ve been doing it mentally. I haven’t written anything in.”
Ed reached for the paper and looked at the crossword. “What’s this?” he said. “Interdict girl, lacking small number, fruity!”
He looked at Bruce. “Did you get that one?”
Bruce shrugged. “Not yet.”
“Banana,” said Ed.
Bruce looked at him. “Banana?”
“Yes,” said Ed, tossing the paper aside. “Interdict Anna? Ban her. Take one n out of Anna, and you’re left with banana.”
Bruce pursed his lips. “Yes, I see. I would probably have reached the same conclusion. No, I definitely would have.” He paused. “You said you were going to bring somebody.”
Ed nodded. “Gregor? Yes, he said he’s going to be a bit late. He’ll be here in ten, fifteen minutes. Don’t worry. You read his e-mail I sent on to you? The one with the details of that house in the Grange?”
“We call them particulars,” said Bruce. “In the business, details are called particulars.”
Ed shrugged. “Same difference. You read it anyway?”
Bruce said that he had. “It’s interesting. Just off Dick Place. Near the cricket ground.”
“That’s the place,” said Ed.
“I played cricket there a few times,” Bruce remembered. “Scored sixty-two runs once. Then I was bowled by that guy MacQueen. I wasn’t ready, but the umpire was looking the wrong way.”
“They often do,” said Ed.
“I could have made a century. I was in with Rob Houlihan. Remember him?”
“The guy with one leg?”
“No, Rob had two.”
Ed nodded vaguely. “Maybe. I get them mixed up. There was Rob Robson. You’ll remember him. He stayed in Crieff. He was run over last year, you know. Outside Valentine’s. Remember the outfitters – T Palmer Valentine?”
Bruce looked down at Ed’s shoes. “You got those shoes there?”
Ed nodded. “They always stock them. Anyway, Rob – Rob Robson, that is – was there with his new wife. I don’t know her name – Gemma, or something like that – but she worked at the Hydro, I think. She was quite a stunner – how Rob got her is anybody’s guess. He’s a real minger. Anyway, he was there walking along the street and this guy in an Alfa Romeo came round the corner and ran Rob over. Broad daylight. Bang. Buona notte, Roberto.”
Bruce winced. “Poor Rob. What with his dandruff and now … now being run over.”
“But don’t worry,” Ed said quickly. “You know what? Rob picked himself up from under the car. Just like that. Picked himself up. He was unharmed – completely unharmed. Can you believe it?”
“Rugby,” mused Bruce. “He was in the scrum, remember? Those guys can take anything.”
“Yes, well, you know what Rob did next? This Alfa Romeo chap had got out of the car and was rabbiting on about how the sun had been in his eyes or whatever, and Rob just socked him in the jaw. Right there and then. Knocked him down.”
Bruce laughed. “Rob never hung around.”
“No. Not this time either. He had a lot of anger in him, I think. Years of it. All pent up. Maybe because of having his head crushed in the scrum. You know how it affects them. So this anger all came out and this guy hits the deck. Knocked out.”
“Yes. And somebody had called an ambulance for Rob, but when it arrived Rob didn’t need it and so it just picked up the Alfa Romeo chap and took him off to Perth Royal Infirmary. He was okay, but the Alfa Romeo got a parking ticket.”
Bruce sipped the last of his coffee. “I’m still hungry. What about you, Ed? Carrot roll?”
Ed smiled. “Very funny, Bruce.”
Bruce became serious. “This place in the Grange – you want to buy it?”
“No,” said Ed. “We’re going to sell it. It belongs to Gregor, you see.”
“The Gregor who’s coming here?”
“Yes. He’s an interior decorator. Paint, wallpaper, presentation. All that. He can transform anything. Saughton Prison? No problem. That old gasworks down near Trinity? Bijou flats. No question. Flair, you see. You need flair, and Gregor has serious flair.” He paused. “He comes from Glasgow.”
Bruce looked thoughtful. “And this place in the Grange – you say that it could be converted into flats?”
Ed nodded. “It could be. But not by us.”
Bruce waited for an explanation.
“No, we’ll be working on another place down the road. This one is different. We’re the sellers. Or Gregor is, but we’re involved. He acquired it six months ago.”
Bruce asked why, if it had only recently been acquired, it should now be sold.
Ed touched the side of his nose. “Wait until Gregor comes. Then I’ll tell you.”
He looked at Bruce. “I hope you’re discreet.”
“Of course I am.”
Ed hesitated. “Because what I have in mind is … how shall we put it? Creative. Have you got the guts for that? If not, end of story.”
Bruce stared at Ed. He would not let Ed Macdonald, of all people, think he was scared of a challenge.
“Who do you think I am?” he answered scornfully.
“Good,” said Ed.
© Alexander McCall Smith, 2021. A Promise of Ankles (Scotland Street 14) is available now. Love in the Time of Bertie (Scotland Street 15) will be published by Polygon in hardback in November 2021.